Candidates debate at OUS

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 31, 2007

While ghosts and goblins roamed the streets in search of candy, Ironton political hopefuls were at the Ohio University Southern campus looking for votes.

Candidates for the Ironton school board, city council and mayor’s office debated questions posed by audience members in a forum sponsored by the Ironton Cooperative Club on Tuesday evening.

Each candidate got three minutes to introduce themselves and their position and then one minute to answer questions asked by moderator Bob Smith, formerly of WSAZ and Ohio University.

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Ironton Board of Education

There are five candidates running for three open positions on Ironton school board. The three incumbents are Tim Johnson, Kathy Kratzenberg and Robert Pleasant Jr.

Philip Staton volunteers with the athletic department and John Wolfe was on the board in the early 1990s.

The first question was the biggest issues facing the board for the next four years.

Johnson said the biggest was the $48.5 million school building project.

“This is the biggest thing we have had in the past 40 or 50 years,” he said.

Kratzenberg said that in the next two years it would be the “swing space” - the moving of students from one space to another during construction.

“This is a huge, huge project and we don’t want to forget the children,” she said.

Pleasant said that besides those two things, the board had to be good stewards of the funds the taxpayers give to the schools.

Staton said the important thing was graduation levels.

“We need to make sure we stay with the kids and make sure they get an education,” he said. He also wanted to see more computer-related classes so kids can go from school to the workforce.

One of Wolfe’s concerns was technology.

“If we look at the schools, we are far, far behind times with technology,” he said.

On the issue of random drug testing of students in extracurricular activities, there was a wide range of opinions.

Kratenberg thought the use of drug sniffing dog would be a better, less intrusive option than random testing of athletes. Pleasant said there needed to be more study done before they started testing students. Staton said he had approached the board last year on the subject and said he was 100 percent behind testing everyone in the school system. Wolfe said if they are going to be random tests, why not the entire student body although he was concerned about false positives if a student is taking a drug they are prescribed. Johnson said he would have to see how the tests are conducted but he was for more drug education.

The candidates were also asked about how test scores stacked up against national averages.

Kratzenberg said the scores had been steadily improving. She said she was for working with the children more and for more training for teachers. Pleasant said that the schools were making strides, pointing out they had gone up from continuous improvement to effective. Staton said the Ironton schools were second from bottom in the county so there had to be more improvements. Wolfe said he would like to see more improvement but that would require more support from student’s family. Johnson said even with the improved scores he would like to have a counselor to work with middle school students to get them excited about going to college.

Ironton City Council

In the council race, there are three open positions on the seven person body. Two candidates are incumbents, Rick Meeks and Vice Mayor Chuck O’Leary. Frank Murphy and Michael Lutz are local businessmen, Kevin Waldo is an attorney and Robert Smith is retired from Sunoco Chemical.

One of the big questions facing the council candidates was how the city looks.

Lutz said he was part of a group of local businessmen who had started the Lawrence County Home Improvement Program which began to address the dilapidated building issue. The group works to get a house declared a nuisance by a court which either orders the building cleaned up or razed.

“This is vitally important (issue),” he said. “You can’t go two blocks without seeing one of these houses.”

Meeks said the city is not in the business of demolishing buildings.

“We have to enforce the codes we have in place,” he said. “We have to make people responsible for owning a dilapidated building.”

Murphy, who is also part of the Lawrence County Home Improvement Program, said there are over 100 houses in Ironton that fits the description of dilapidated.

“Some people can’t afford to fix up their houses,” he said. But “there are people who do have the means to take care of it.”

O’Leary said it isn’t as easy as everyone makes it out to get a building razed and there are several hoops to jump through to finish the process. He said he was for escalating the fees the city can impose on these properties on a monthly basis and if the owners don’t fix it up, “we tear it down and sell it sheriff’s sale.”

Smith said he was concerned for the senior citizens who can’t afford to fix it and wondered if the city could get grants to help them.

Waldo said the issue was a big concern to the city and should be a concern of everyone since everyone is affected.

“We can’t expect to attract business and get people to live here (with so many dilapidated buildings),” he said.

The candidates were asked to weigh in on why the city doesn’t have a permanent finance director. Kathy Elam is currently serving on an interim basis and on the Nov. 6 ballet is a charter amendment where the requirement for the finance director would not be required to live in the city.

Murphy said Elam was doing an excellent job and if the charter was amended by the voters, he would support her for the job.

O’Leary said he was instrumental in last year’s search for a finance director and they hired the best they could afford. He said he doesn’t think it should be a requirement of the finance director to live in town. He said neither the fire chief or the police chief are required to live in town.

“I don’t think we are going to have a 3 a.m. emergency in the finance department,” he said.

Meeks said he was voting to change the charter because it handcuffs to hiring certain positions to certain addresses.

Ironton Mayor

Two current councilmen are among those running for the mayor’s office. Rich Blankenship has been on council for the past two years and Bob Cleary has been on council before as well as being both appointed and elected mayor. Bob Vaughn served on council in the 1990s. Walt Butler is an insurance agent and write-in candidate Leonard Batisse had the best opening line of the night with “you probably know me for being in your backyard, I’m the guy who reads your electric meter.”

One of the big questions asked of the mayoral candidates was the Ironton-Russell Bridge.

Cleary said he was approached by the state on replacing the bridge when he was still mayor. He said the delays are going to cost the state more to replace it.

“Who are they kidding, its not going to get any cheaper,” he said, adding Ironton needed to get a group together and go to Columbus to talk to the governor and other state officials.

Butler said that every time state officials talked about the bridge it kept going up in price from the original price tag of $60 million to the final rejected bid of $109 million.

“We need to go to Columbus, that is exactly right,” he said. “We need a bridge now that is safe, not in 2016.

Blankenship said the bridge is a vital artery to Kentucky for healthcare and jobs. He said that state officials told council that the governor has put the bridge project on the fast track but Ironton also needed to court people to get a hospital and a hotel back in town.

Vaughn said the bridge was built in 1922 and it’s seen its good old days. He said we need a bridge now not 10 years down the road since the current bridge wouldn’t survive another decade.

Battise said he was under the bridge yesterday and he was concerned since there was metal flake falling as cars drove over.

When it comes to promoting Ironton to prospective businesses, the candidates had their own ideas.

Battise said he need to make Ironton the city of choice for businesses and had to make the best use of the valuable available land. He said “we have to be competitive to get business here and we need to be competitive to keep it here.”

Blankenship said that it would take a full-time mayor to search for opportunities. He said Ironton needed to be marketed on the Internet and at trade shows and that they had to work with the state to continue the positive momentum the city has had.

Vaughn said it was the same old story that until the city is cleaned up, businesses would find it hard to locate here. He said the Internet is a good tool for promotion.

“We can get manufacturers here,” he said. “We can get good paying jobs here.”

Cleary said he would be a full-time mayor despite having a business. He said he wants the spec building that the state has been promising to be built in the South Ironton Industrial Park. He also said the city should go after any type of businesses, whether it employees two people or 200.

Butler said city officials have to go out and do more recruiting.

“We have to show what we have to offer,” he said, adding they had to go after large and small businesses.

The candidates forum was taped by the OUS electronic media department for future broadcast on Channel 25 on Wednesay, Friday, Sunday, and Monday at 7 p.m.